“So I jumped back into where I learned to swim, tried to keep my head above it the best I can.” ~ The Sound of Sunshine, Michael Franti & Spearhead
I’ve started to swim.
The neighborhood pool is just up the street. It’s right where it’s always been, but I’ve only recently begun to swim. Up until now, I’ve generally steered clear of the pool, mostly because I was never one who was much for the sun. Its kisses always covered me with too many freckles, and its hugs were often so hot they left me with headaches. So, typically, I’ve spent my summers from the inside out, drawing the shades and blasting the air and counting the days until fall.
But something happened once I started to practice yoga. When the warm weather hit, I suddenly stopped counting the days! It seemed the more I practiced, the more I craved fresh air, and if it were hot outside, I no longer cared. I have no idea how this came to be. Maybe it had something to do with all the breathing we were doing at yoga. I thought perhaps the practice was airing me out, because for the first time in a long time I seemed to be breathing in new life. At home, I started to open the windows and sit on my porches again. I started walking in the neighborhood, and sometimes, if I felt like it, I’d even turn my face to the sun!
It wasn’t long before I had the good idea to organize a pass to the pool. I arranged for it in the springtime, but it wasn’t until the end of the summer when I finally had the chance to use it. It was a hot and quiet August evening when I returned home from work to rummage through my night table drawer, hoping to find my bathing suit. It’d been so long since I’d last swum that I couldn’t even remember if I still owned one! Luckily for me, I fished out an oldie but goodie, and thanks to yoga, it still fit! I checked the time. It was as late in the day as it was in the season, but if I hurried, I could still make it to the pool with time to swim before it closed.
When I arrived, I was surprised to find that I was one of only a few people there. Only one lifeguard sat in a chair; the rest were playing table tennis over by the lawn. They looked up and waved when I walked in, and I waved back at them. Music drifted casually in the air, and I got the immediate sense that time moved slower here. And, so, I moved slower, too. My hurried feeling all but disappeared, and I put my things down, took off my overclothes and walked over to the edge of the pool.
The swimming lanes stretched out languidly in front of me, the water inside waiting patiently. On my right a curtain of pine trees closed against the street, and on my left a fountain in the shape of a mushroom splashed playfully. I dipped my toe in the water to test the temperature. It was a reflexive move, an old habit from the many summers I spent swimming as a young girl at camp.
At camp, swimming was a mandatory activity, and so every summer I swam almost every day, and sometimes even twice a day. The camp pool was divided into four sections, and just like the chakras in yoga, each section had its own color designation. Red was for beginners, and blue was for intermediate swimmers. Green was for swimming laps, and yellow was for diving. Within days of our arriving at camp, our swimming skills were tested. We’d jump into the pool and demonstrate our strokes and show the counselors whether we could tread or float.
After, we’d climb out of the pool and stand in line, hungry from the effort and shivering in the early morning mountain air. Then, one by one, we’d hand over our caps to be painted on the top with a red, blue, green or yellow polka dot. It was an annual ritual that informed us of the sections for our swim lessons, and also the parts of the pool we could play in when it came time for our favorite, Free Swim.
It was now decades past those polka-dotted days, when the air had yet to heat up, and we’d have to jump into the water without warming up. On this late summer evening, it was nice and warm, and so I swung my legs over the edge of the pool and lowered myself in. Then, I lowered myself further still, so the water could rise past my chest and over my shoulders and up to my neck. And then I pushed off the wall in a full body stretch.
I cut through the water like this, gliding along its surface before circling my arms and lifting my chest, so I could take my first breath. I blinked the water from my eyes. The chlorine stung, but I kept on swimming to the other side. And when I got there, I pushed off the wall and swam the Crawl. Fluttering my feet, I lifted one arm and then the other, my hands like paddles propelling me through the water. I swam a few more laps like that and called it a night.
The next evening, I returned to swim a few more laps, and then the following evening I returned to swim a few more than that. Next, I ordered a pair of goggles to protect my eyes, and when they arrived, I went back to the pool and swam some more. My old bathing suit was getting more wear than ever before, except when I would swim directly after yoga. When that happened, I’d simply swim in whatever I happened to have practiced in!
And now a full year has passed, and when this summer began, right away I was ready to swim. And so that’s what I’ve been doing since then, so much so that swimming is now a natural extension of my yoga practice. It, too, is done on the breath, and for me it has the same transformative effects.
Like yoga, swimming is a moving meditation, too. There’s a vinyasa in my Breaststroke, an Up Dog in my Backstroke and a handstand in my Crawl. I swim in a creative flow, adding in strokes from my childhood lessons when I used to swim in the green section. There’s Sidestroke, which comes with a mantra, and Elementary Backstroke, which is the equivalent of Savasana. And, so, I swim on my side and “pick a cherry, eat a cherry, throw the seed away”, and then I turn on my back and glide. With my ears just below the surface of the water, the sound of my breath gets amplified, and I listen to it as I take myself on a supine ride.
To me, it is nothing short of miraculous that I should have any sort of outdoor practice, much less one that has me at the pool with goggles on my face! But that’s the best part, I think, because that’s the part that lets me know the practice is working. In this way, swimming is also like yoga, because it brings me back to who I was when I used to play in the grass and dunk in the pool and not be self-conscious in the ways that we learn how to be when we grow up.
At camp, it would take many summers to progress through all the sections and finally finish the yellow lessons. But for those of us who kept coming back, we were finally able to do that, and that made us eligible for Lifesaving lessons. In these lessons, we learned not only how to rescue others but also how to rescue ourselves. And for some reason, this required us to retrieve a brick from the bottom of the pool, all the way in the deep end, while fully clothed.
Of course, I remember my Lifesaving test as if it were yesterday. I’d waited all summer to jump in the pool wearing my sister’s long-sleeved, button down shirt and my favorite blue jeans. I can still feel the water quickly soaking in, and the feeling of getting heavier and heavier, as I pushed my way down further, and further still, until I finally reached the very bottom of the pool. With outstretched arms, I grabbed the brick and began to kick. Holding it as tightly as I held my breath, I traveled up and up and up, and just as I was about to break through the surface, I felt that brick slip! It fell right through my fingertips and reversed its trip!
I had no choice but to follow it back down, and so that’s what I did. I swam after that brick, and this time when I got to it, I grabbed it and maintained my grip for the entire ascent. I came up for air, holding it tightly still, and then I swam over to the edge of the pool, where I successfully hoisted it onto the concrete deck. It might have taken two trips, but I passed the test.
I didn’t know it then, but my going back to the bottom proved to be the real lesson. In lifesaving, our missions can sometimes involve multiple trips, especially when we’re trying to rescue what’s slipped.
And, so, I plan to continue swimming, because, as with yoga, those laps are now part of my mission. They are the same as my trips down and back, just like the ones that I make on the mat. And it takes practice to get good at that. That’s why I step into Warrior One when the instructor at yoga calls for another one, even though we’ve just come from one.
“We’ve been here many times before,” he says. “So what?”
And then I’ll go to the pool and get my laps done. And, at the end, I’ll lean up against the wall, sitting low, so that the water can rise past my chest and over my shoulders and up to my neck. And I’ll sit like that for a moment and catch my breath, before hoisting myself out of the water like I did that brick.
And then I’ll wrap up in a towel, just like I used to when I would play in the grass and dunk in the pool and not be self-conscious in the ways that we learn how to be when we grow up. And finally, before leaving, I’ll turn my face to the sun, because, after all, a few freckles never hurt anyone.